Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, may be the conservative movement’s first populist egghead — a grassroots leader who is attacked for being too smart to have common sense. In political theater, you’re usually allowed to wear only one of these costumes.
The populist claims to possess the horse sense of the electorate and has no need for fancy schools, with their eating clubs, trays of sherry and debating societies. That was Sarah Palin’s posture. It was also true of the men to whom Cruz has recently been unfavorably compared — Huey Long, Joe McCarthy and George Wallace — and those conservative luminaries he aspires to join — Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Cruz came to Washington as an anti-establishment bolt from the blue, having defeated the GOP’s preferred nominee in his first Senate race. In the recent Obamacare fight, he sharpened his populist credentials against the elites. After his bid to defund the Affordable Care Act failed, Cruz took to the microphones and aligned himself with the “millions of Americans” harmed by the president’s pet project — people he claimed the GOP establishment had forsaken.
The establishment usually scorns the populist as a dummy, full of overheated rhetoric for the masses but not much more. When the smarty-pants set attacked Cruz for his Obamacare grandstanding, it looked like a familiar script. The elites thought it was dumb, but “real Americans,” thought Cruz was a hero, said former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas. Mike Gallagher, the conservative talk radio host, said in an interview with Cruz, “You’re not getting the credit you deserve from the intelligentsia, but you sure are from the American people.”
But Cruz wasn’t being mocked for low wattage the way Palin and Reagan had been. Cruz was being singled out for a lack of common sense born of his rarefied résumé. He graduated cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, practiced law and worked in government, avoiding the practical world of business. Even his wife — a Goldman Sachs investment banker and vegetarian — seems at odds with Cruz’s image as the tribune of the silent majority.
When Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Tenn., sought to discredit Cruz’s strategy to defund Obamacare by pushing a budget showdown, he tweaked him about his education. “I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count — the defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position,” said Corker. After the gambit failed, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid sounded the same theme: “ (Sen. Cruz) might be able to work a calculus problem better than I can. But he can’t legislate better than I can.” The junior Texas senator’s strategy, wrote conservative columnist John Podhoretz, gave “flesh to George Orwell’s warning that some ideas are so stupid, only an intellectual could believe in them.”
It is usually the self-styled populist who levels the egghead charge. George Wallace complained about “pointy-head college professors, who can’t even park a bicycle straight.” Historian Richard Hofstadter traced the tradition of anti-intellectualism through the American experience, but in the modern age the attack was first effectively used by Dwight Eisenhower and his running mate Richard Nixon in the 1952 presidential race against Adlai Stevenson. Ike accused the former Illinois governor of using “aristocratic explanations in Harvard words,” which he associated with Stevenson’s “faintness at heart.” (After his defeat, Stevenson famously joked: “Eggheads of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your yolks.”) When Nixon became president, one of his special tirades was directed at Ivy League presidents who had not seen things his way on Vietnam: “The Ivy League presidents? Why I’ll never let those sons of bitches in the White House again. Never, never, never. They’re finished. The Ivy League schools are finished.”